Dispatch From Woody Guthrie’s Hometown

Source: Mother Jones

It’s hard to imagine a quiet town like Okemah spawning a rabble-rousing, labor-loving, leftist. But then, once you walk around for a bit, it’s also really hard to imagine Woodrow Wilson Guthrie coming from anywhere else.

The legendary folk singer’s childhood home in Okfuskee County sits halfway up a hill (“the hill,” if you ask for directions in town), one block south of the public library, roughly equidistant from Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and the surface of the sun (about an hour each way, I think).* If you drove 14,000 miles to see the home of a folk hero, it’d be more than a little dispiriting to discover it’d been turned into a McMansion with a swimming pool for the poodle and quarters for the servants. But don’t worry; Woody Guthrie’s childhood home is totally the mess you’d hope it’d be.

The house was torn down decades ago, leaving only the stone foundations, and, in true Guthrie fashion, it’s been commemorated by a piece of folk art. A woodcarver named Justin Osborn, who lives and works right across the street on a plot cluttered with his creations, carved up an oak in the front yard of the old Guthrie house and made a monument: There’s an acoustic guitar carved on top, “This Land is Your Land” in big letters on one side, and “Okemah” carved on the other.

Driving through Okemah, you might get the sense that he’s the biggest thing to ever happen to the place. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. “All the old-timers here all thought he was a communist,” says Teresa Labbe at the Okemah Public Library. “And even as the Woody Guthrie Festival was just getting started, there was a lot of controversy. Even now, some of the old-timers in town don’t like him.”

No kidding. When the town first tried to honor the singer with Woody Guthrie Day in 1967, the American Legion sprang into action, successfully blocking the holiday on the basis on Guthrie’s lefty leanings. It wasn’t quite Derek Zoolander returning to Appalachia, but Guthrie was’t exactly lionized by his neighbors, either.

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